Wednesday, October 11, 2017

California Gold Country Visit Cut Short by Wildfires

Our drive from Chico to Grass Valley took us in to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range at about 2,500 feet of elevation and slightly cooler temps. We stayed at the Nevada County Fairgrounds RV Park, which at $40/night is one of the less expensive RV parks in the area. This is California's gold rush country, a popular tourist destination due to all the history and scenic beauty the area offers.

A beautiful evening walk around the pond adjacent to the fairgrounds RV park.

We arrived on a Saturday and discovered a number of events taking place at the extensive and beautiful fairgrounds. There was an International Harvester Truck Show, a Veterans Stand Down and a Gem and Mineral Show.

Good old International Harvesters!

Gold-bearing quartz was discovered in Grass Valley, CA in 1850 which led to the era of hardrock (underground) mining. Today Grass Valley and neighboring Nevada City are historical gems full of wonderful old buildings and rich mining history.

Lots of beautiful, well preserved historic buildings in downtown Grass Valley.

Gorgeous mural detail in Grass Valley.

Today Nevada City has about 3,000 inhabitants, down from the boomtown population of 10,000 in the mid 1800's. Only five miles from Grass Valley, Nevada City is just as historically beautiful and its downtown has slightly more upscale shops and an edgier vibe.

One of the largest historical sites in the area is Empire Mine State Historic Park. The Empire Mine was once California's richest gold-producing mine and was active for almost 100 years. It has 367 miles of mine shafts, up to 11,000 feet deep. The park's visitor center has an impressive scale model of the entire mine along with a detailed audio description of the mine's evolution.

Though mining began at Empire around 1850, the mine did not begin to prosper until William Bourn, Sr. acquired a controlling interest in 1869. His son, William Bourn, Jr., later brought the mine into another profitable era and also built a grand "cottage" and formal gardens on the site for his family.

The cottage and mine sites are enclosed in a fee area, but there are also miles of trails in the state park that are accessible for free. Dogs are allowed on all park grounds.

The Bourn's cottage was one of several homes the family owned.

The formal gardens are lovely, and would have been a dramatic contrast to the adjacent mine grounds.

The mine's administrative buildings.

Demonstrations happening in the blacksmith building. 

Lots of equipment on display depicting the evolution of mining over many decades.

I remember seeing an "extreme" fire danger warning sign as we arrived in Grass Valley and with the hot dry weather and increasing winds we knew to be on the lookout for fire. On our second night the wind picked up dramatically and when Hans looked outside at midnight he saw our chairs being blown about. When he went outside to gather them he saw a large fire burning across the road from the RV park, about 100 yards from us. When he called 911 he was told help was already en route.

We quickly packed up the RV, hitched up to the truck and sat in the truck watching the horror unfold in front of us. If the wind were to change direction we needed to leave immediately...the Ponderosa pines between us and the fire would be a tinder box.

Over the next four hours we watched the wind ebb and flow, fortunately for us continuing to blow in a SW direction, keeping the fire away from us. We watched two buildings, though right next to each other, burn up about an hour apart. We saw giant Ponderosa pines explode into flaming torches. We heard dozens of explosions, probably propane tanks, fuel tanks, and other combustible items as the fire moved SW fueled by the wind. We saw a broken power line sparking on the ground. We saw horses being led by flashlight around the pond to the fairgrounds stables. We saw dozens of evacuees heading north out of the danger zone and dozens of first responder vehicles heading south into the fire zone.

The view from our RV.

Zoom of a building engulfed in flames.

By 6am the fire was contained and had burned about 200 acres. Another larger fire was burning about 10 miles west of us. Over the course of the morning the fairgrounds where we were staying was designated an evacuation point for animals and a staging area for CalFire.

We learned the fire was started by the broken power line we had seen the night before...right across the street from our campsite. With no power, smoke beginning to settle in the area, and lots of displaced people and animals and first responders descending on the fairgrounds it was time for us to move on.

We were so grateful to have suffered only a sleepless, scary many other people are dealing with fear and devastating loss in the many fires across northern California.

Morning view of the two buildings that burned down overnight.

This is where the fire started, you can see a dangled cut power line on the left pole.


  1. Good Grief that had to be a frightful night. The Santa Anna winds have finally died down in SoCal, come-on home.

    1. It was awful.

      Glad to hear the winds are down in SoCal...fingers crossed San Diego makes it through this fire season unscathed.

  2. What a stressful night! This sure isn't a good time to be traveling through CA.

  3. That certainly is something I never want to experience...

  4. Oh man how scary! Especially considering all the terrible wildfires that have devastated the Napa area lately. Glad nothing bad happened to you guys.

  5. That has to be the nicest fairgrounds rv park I've ever seen!! Gorgeous water and trees. We lived near the gold country when my oldest was in elementary school and the field trips about CA history were so great. Quite the "cottage" :-)) Love the lizard and the old yellow truck. Scary night of fire-watch. Glad it was a small part of your visit to that pretty area.

    1. It was a decent fairgrounds park. The roads and sites were dirt/gravel and pretty close together in the FHU area, slightly more spread out with less hookups. The pond was lovely and the fairgrounds were unique and interesting.

  6. That is a truly terrifying story. We're so glad you guys are safe. It sure looked beautiful and seemed like you were having a great time before that sleepless night.

    1. I think this area would be really pretty to visit in the spring and a lot less worry about fires!

  7. Looks like a great fairgrounds RV park! So scary to watch the fire burning across the street! I'm sure you were debating on what to so. The winds shifts the flames so fast. Very glad you are all right:)

  8. What a horrific night for you two! So happy to hear that you made it out safely. What is going on in CA right now is heartbreaking to watch. This does look like a great place to visit outside of fire season.